Virgil Thomson
Biography
Vignettes
Further Information
List of Works
The Foundation

Virgil Thomson - Vignettes of His Life and Times

by Paul Wittke

I. The Beginnings
II. The Musician
    The Operas
    Other Compositions
    Coda
III. The Personality

I. The Beginnings

Kansas City

Everything may have been up-to-date in Kansas City, Kansas, as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, but everything happened in Kansas City, Missouri, where Virgil Thomson, its most inimitable citizen, was born on 25 November 1896. He set the record straight in the first sentences of his spic and span autobiography (1966): "To anyone brought up there, as I was, 'Kansas City' always meant the Missouri one.... You did not speak of Kansas City, Kansas, often...or go there unless you had business." The truculence of these sentences was his benchmark to his dying day.

Thomson's great romance with Missouri needs no apology. The state has never been a cultural desert; its historical and sociological history is of great importance in our political life. The journalist Horace Greeley, the editor William Allen White, the painter Thomas Hart Benton, and Harry Truman are among its glories. In fact, the entire Midwest is a bedrock of our cultural history whose native sons and daughters include T. S. Eliot, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, and Marianne Moore.

Thomson was a prodigy: intellectually, verbally, musically, and literarily, and he voraciously apprehended the world around him. He must have been a difficult child to handle and was surely an oddball to his many friends. They admired him but were aware of the need to protect themselves from his boundless energy and perceptive ability to ferret out fuzzy conclusions and illogical thinking.

The Thomsons were genteel folk, solid, sturdy stuff; not rigid, a wisely tolerant middle-class family. Virgil Thomson's sympathetic Scottish father was tone deaf; his English-Welsh mother musical, forthright, and practical; his beloved sister artistic, gifted in painting. This warm, close-knit family gave their spoiled child pretty much a free hand to explore all the allurements, the prim and the rowdy, of a thriving river town.

By the 1890s, Kansas City, Missouri, was a commercial and artistic rival of Chicago. Virgil Thomson observed and absorbed the exciting frontier sportsmanship, often not so polite derring-do, of a mobile, burgeoning self-confident city. This image of Kansas City never left him and was a dominant factor in his personality. The music he heard was part and parcel of the wide-open world around him -- Civil War songs, cowboy songs, the blues, barn-dance music, Baptist hymns, folk songs, sentimental popular songs, as well as the canons of Western art music that he studied. They were indelibly embedded in him, and he undertook to reconstruct this atmosphere.

At five he played the piano, at 12 he was a paid organist at the Calvary Baptist Church and astounded the congregation with his outlandish improvisations.

Two facts that foreshadow the Thomson-to-be should be mentioned. His mother encouraged him to host Sunday evening gatherings at home where he and his bright friends, young and old, dissected intellectual and artistic subjects for hours on end. Had Virgil Thomson heard of the immense power of the intellectual salons of Europe and America, and what they contributed to world culture? Did he have a sixth sense that someday he would be a contributing member and jovial host to endless high-powered gatherings of contemporary artists?

By his teens he was addicted to reading on all subjects that interested him, a vice he never outgrew. After high school he became the star pupil of the first class of the newly established Kansas City Polytechnic Institute and Junior College, founding and commanding an elite literary group. It printed a magazine that, arrogantly immature as it must have been, was based on the same concept of the now-famous American and European "little magazines" of that period -- Transition, Criterion, the Little Review, Broom, etc. Virgil Thomson's band of little warriors also deemed it their mission to foster and promulgate the avant-garde for the benefit of humankind. They of course had no James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, or Hemingway on their rostrum. Virgil Thomson's provincial little magazine was only a student periodical of prewar America, but it was searching for the same kind of literary material that sophisticated people in the outer world, far from Kansas City, were looking for and publishing and of whose existence Thomson was probably unaware.

Virgil Thomson's instincts were right. By now he was aware of the multiplicity of his interests and it posed a dilemma for him. With two equally full-blown talents should he be a writer or a musician? He may have been an unconventional dreamer, lost in the world of his own ambitions, but these talents were real and he devoted his long life to them. He lived to be 92 and never grew up -- but he was always true to the boy born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri.

In 1917 Thomson joined the army, not entirely for patriotic reasons. His excessive energy needed an active outlet and he wanted to enlarge his horizons. Stationed in New York City, he savored its cultural and social life. He was a meticulous dresser, with Beau Brummel tendencies, always neat, shiny, and affable. He made many social contacts, a profession at which he was naturally adept, but found the homes of the rich not to his liking -- a prejudice he was soon to outgrow -- preferring to visit the Anglican and Catholic Churches where he was stimulated by their music, particularly the Gregorian chant.

Thomson was never, no matter what the circumstances, a procrastinating pleasure seeker of mindless entertainments. A perennial autodidact, he sought out only persons and interests that contributed all that was best and amusing that life had to offer. Typically, he applied himself to the rigors of military life with intelligence, efficiency, and enthusiasm. He appeared to be one of the boys, but in his heart he knew he was a few steps ahead and several feet above.

At the end of the war he was a second lieutenant in the United States Military Aviation Corps. The arrogant school boy who returned home was in no way chastened but more sure of himself than ever. He knew what he wanted to do -- make a career in music -- and was fidgeting to tackle anything the future had to offer. He had tasted big-time life, fallen in love with New York, and was beginning to learn how to function in a sophisticated, competitive environment.

But his parents were in no position to help him; they could not afford to send him to college. However, the ever resourceful young man found a way.

Harvard

Thomson enrolled as a student in Harvard in 1919 financed by the Mormon Church; his friendship with Alice Smith, great-granddaughter of the church's founder, smoothed the way for him to attain a scholarship. There he was fortunate to find two instructors that molded his thinking and gave him a glimpse of the world beyond Cambridge. His counterpoint teacher, Archibald Davison, was the conductor of the Harvard Glee Club and Thomson became its accompanist. Davison's enlightened ideas of choral music and vast knowledge of 15th- and 16th-century church music had a lasting effect on Thomson's musical style, sacred (Missa Brevis) and secular (the operas and the Edward Lear cantata).

Edward Burlingame Hill explicated the history of music in a broad philosophical way; his fresh ideas had nothing in common with the embalmed, fusty opinions of his academic brethren of the time. The freedom to investigate and amalgamate strands of disparate esthetic musicological thinking became a distinctive trait of Thomson's own critical writings.

The William Blake scholar, S. Foster Damon, introduced Thomson to the two dominant figures of his creative life, Gertrude Stein and Erik Satie. Years before they met Thomson was intrigued by Stein and challenged by her "Tender Buttons," still considered an arcane book. He sensed there was logic behind her puzzling arrangement of words and grammatical incoherencies. The simplicity and Puckish wit of Satie's music and his thumbing his nose at classical formulas aroused Thomson's natural tendencies toward irreverence.

Glimpse of Paris

In the summer of 1921, at the invitation of the French government, Davison and the Harvard Glee Club embarked on a European tour. Thomson, who had just been awarded a John Knowles Paine Teaching Fellowship for a year's musical study in Paris, was the accompanist. The vivacity of the group's performance so impressed Satie, Poulenc, and Milhaud that they offered to write music for them. Before their first concert in Vienna, Davison became ill and Thomson at the last moment had to conduct in his place. He was a smashing success, never at a loss of self-confidence, and was not at all surprised to discover that he was perfectly at ease on the podium, and casually added conducting to his panel of achievements.

When they returned to Paris, Thomson was on his own. Any trepidation he may have felt was soon under control, and, like Aaron Copland, he became a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, but Thomson never completely fell under her spell as did Elliott Carter, Roy Harris, and many others who followed later. (Thomson named the American acolytes "the Boulangerie.") His reservations about her teaching methods did not apply to her attitude toward composition which she believed should be as unaffected and easy as writing a letter. She also extolled the clarity of the French classicists Rameau and Couperin, whose music rhetoric helped shape his own. This was the time when Boulanger's friend Igor Stravinsky was the avatar of Neoclassicism -- precision, directness, and wit were the order of the day. Thomson possessed all three.

Before long he was intimate with the intellectual world of Cocteau, Milhaud, and Honneger, and found that in many ways Paris reminded him of Missouri. Both cities were overflowing with energy, open to the new and exciting, but their differences were minimal -- Kansas City, young, raw and provincial; Paris the exact opposite. Thomson was growing up: 1921 was his year of enlightenment.

Return to America

When Thomson returned to Boston, Harvard would not grant him another scholarship until he had earned his musical degree, but they softened the blow by appointing him assistant professor under Hill and Davison and making him organist at historic King's Chapel where (like Charles Ives) he astounded his listeners with strenuous and discordant improvisations. At the same time he seriously continued his studies and amused and confounded his friends with his nonstop flow of nimble wit when they met to heatedly discuss the state of the arts and the affairs of the world at the exclusively highbrow Liberal Club.

After graduating in 1923, a Juilliard Fellowship enabled him to spend a year in New York, where he studied counterpoint with Rosario Scalero, the martinet teacher of Barber and Menotti. This gave him a proficiency he always used with ease in his later compositions, particularly the Portraits. He was glad to return to Boston, for in spite of its glamour and multitudinous offerings, he found New York, compared to Paris, commercial, strident, cold, and inhospitable to the arts.

Boston, too, was sterile and boringly decorous; he itched to move on to where the excitement was. But his finances were shaky, even though his income was nourished by checks from the periodicals he had begun to write for. In 1924, his career as a professional writer was initiated by H. L. Mencken, the caustic editor of the prestigious American Mercury. Mencken suggested that Thomson should write an article on jazz; it was the first serious discussion of the subject to appear in print. From then on he wrote pieces for Vanity Fair and other fashionable, quality magazines of the 1920s.

Before this he had been an occasional critic for the Boston Transcript and during the 1921 tour was its Paris correspondent, sending home news of French cultural life. Eventually he saved enough money to fulfill his dream to live, breathe, and work in Paris. He said, "I prefer to starve where the food is good."

But the most profound event of the Harvard years was his meeting Maurice Grosser and the beginning of their lifelong close companionship. Only Grosser had the intelligence, wit, and stamina to keep up with Thomson, and the patience to understand his often bizarre behavior.

Erik Satie/Gertrude Stein

The talents of Thomson, were, by his own admission, brought to maturity by Erik Satie and Gertrude Stein. They brought to the surface ideas, feelings and reactions that had been planted in Kansas City, for in the theater of his mind, this was where most of his inner and artistic life was enacted.

Thomson's chemistry rejected the Teutonic mechanics of musical composition; the soul-searching symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler were alien to him. Satie and Stein were a breath of fresh air: modern, optimistic, enthusiastic craftsmen seriously dedicated to their art, but living in the here and now. They were not dwellers in some exclusive empyrean or members of the pleasure seeking, drinking, nihilistic crowd of the "crazy 20s" like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the sort Thomson detested.

To the shy Erik Satie music was functional; it was found everywhere in the street, the cafe, the circus, the cabaret, all around him, not in the shibboleths of tradition. This appealed to Thomson whose fundamental belief was that music should be "as simple as a friendly conversation," not some abstruse statement composed in an emotional pressure cooker. (He modified this quite a bit later.) He learned from Satie that music's structure and form needed no arabesque scaffolding, no preconceived recipes. A composer should discover his own form as he proceeds to put the sounds he hears in his head on paper; he should be flexible, imaginative, unself-conscious, say what he has to say simply and know when to stop. This advice Thomson took to heart, and being, like Satie, a bit off the wall in his humor and a total stranger to any authority, he soon found a way to make this philosophy his own. But Thomson was no carbon copy of Satie -- his style and personality were American to the core; his music sounds nothing like his Gallic mentor. Still Thomson would never have acquired his own original stamp without Satie.

It was his acquaintance with Satie's Socrate that overwhelmed Thomson and changed him forever. Its seemingly monochromatic surface and its sparseness were misleading. An intense drama was going on under and over the calm placidity of its few notes. Sounds and silences were woven into the text like a closely woven tapestry. Socrate was truly the 1920s, ahistorical, iconoclastic, like all that was happening in painting and literature, particularly with Stein and Picasso.

Thomson resented that he was often considered a clone of Gertrude Stein, but it must be admitted that a close reading of his words and music does suggest signs of an incestuous relationship -- he was partially intimidated by the Earth Goddess. Stein and Thomson hit it off he said "like two Harvard men" (a variant of Hemingway's "two brothers"). Both were intuitive artists -- although Stein denied her writings were in any way automatic (most critics say they are) -- who could simultaneously live inside and outside themselves. Stein's detached language and Thomson's explicative music are two sides of the same coin. Their dedicated seriousness does not disguise their unbounded, spontaneous humor. They were very funny people; their quips an expression of an unquenchable comic sense.

Stein and Thomson were advocates of immediate gratification whose bland innocence, a grand joke in itself, was a self-conscious adaptation. This is perhaps more true of Thomson for he was not in the long run the formidable force in music she was in literature (and was too smart not to know it). He was always fully aware of what he was doing and why; there was a basic honesty in his craftsmanship. It must have given him an added pleasure to know that his listeners (or readers) enjoyed his blandishments.

Stein restored words and their sounds to a primal purity before they grew up and became encrusted with meaning. Her words, stripped of what we expect them to mean, stand naked on the page, each one a "thing" having a reality and sound of its own. Her words are analogous to Satie's and Thomson's music. The semantic sense of her words is subordinated to achieve only a functional effect -- color, sound, rhythm -- a technique she derived from the cubistic paintings that adorned the walls of Stein's studio in the rue de Fleurus.

Thomson applied a similar technique to his music, liberating notes from their usual moorings in their musical environment and syntax. In the Stein operas this works like an algebraic equation, one side (notes) equals the other (words).

But the aural experience of music is more complicated. Its simplest gesture has a complex and psychological meaning; it is a moving entity and the listener cannot stop its flow (as we can reread a book or look again at a painting to study its properties). Furthermore we have to have some semblance of a musical education to understand (read) a page of music. The composer's responsibility is different than a writer's and to understand Thomson's simplicity we are confronted with a problem. His use of well-known folk tunes and unadorned triadic tonality were the equivalent of Stein's literary dislocations. Listeners must not only adapt to rapid juxtapositions of mood, rhythm, harmony, and styles but they must react in a new way to music already familiar in an entirely different context. It is the strength and weakness of Thomson's music that we must know what the composer is up to and what he means by it. If we respond favorably it is delightful, if not, it has no meaning. Thomson assumes his audience is educated; the naiveté of his music is, on the contrary, sophisticated.

When Stein and Thomson wrote together as a unit, the music was exactly right and appropriate; without her text it is a different story: the music then (in the way that music is considered abstract) has to fend for itself.

Well aware of the differences of literature and music, Thomson, being a writer as well, saw their similarities. Both Stein and Thomson were involved in deconstructing their language, as, in his quiet way, was Satie. Working so closely with Stein, Thomson found his own way of solving musical problems. He made the listener a partner through his arsenal of extraneous references in the creation of the work. This is a novel idea, calling for a new process of listening and reading. (Stein did the same thing in her writing.) The ringmasters at the center of it all were Stein/Thomson, the roles they assumed in their everyday life. (This is a not a negative comment. It is Stein's and Thomson's greatest contribution to modern culture.)

Another important factor is the impact of painting on Thomson's development. He had a passion for it and was involved in it, even in his Missouri days. His sister had a talent for painting chinaware and he had an almost professional knowledge of all branches of pictorial arts. In Paris he was on intimate terms with many great painters -- Jean Arp, Christian Berard, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, and of course, Maurice Grosser. This had an enormous affect on his style and thinking.

Interlude

This monograph is not a chronicle of Thomson's life; it focuses only on his developing years and the people and events salient to his evolution as a composer and writer. It is impossible, without writing an exhaustive biography, to discuss his life in a sequential manner. His life in America, only touched upon here, did not have the color of the Paris of the 1920s. The "character" Virgil Thomson became is more predominant, particularly in his later years. The following pages are designed as "snapshots" to give only a partial sense and flavor of the man and his times.

Paris

When Thomson returned to Paris in 1925, the city was in the midst of a revolution. The Western World since the end of the 19th century was undergoing an intellectual and creative renaissance, new ideas in every branch of human endeavor were skyrocketing. The avant-garde was actively responding to the social, political, and artistic stagnation it had inherited. Other cities -- New York, Vienna, London, Berlin -- were just as frenetic and exciting. But Paris was cheap, tolerated all varieties of experimentation, both artistic and sexual, anonymity was taken for granted, there was not the pressure of aggressive competition of American life.

Thomson was not the only American who migrated to Paris, as any of the infinite books on the subject attest, but the city resonated a deep chord in him; he was endowed with a Parisian soul. All his life he remained a Parisian man of the 20s. He was a shrewd Mark Twain character, bedazzled by the illuminati of the Parisian carnival, although it did not take him long to be accepted and feel at home in it. Never a major player on the world stage -- not a Picasso, Stravinsky, Stein, or Joyce -- he was nevertheless more than a transient bit player.

Bernard Fay

A key figure in Thomson's access to acceptance of him by the Parisian intelligentsia was Bernard Fay. He was a friend of H. P. Parker, theater and music critic of the Boston Transcript for whom the fledgling Thomson wrote critical articles. Fay, a French historian who had studied at Harvard, was instrumental in his government's invitation of the Glee Club to perform in Paris. Parker gave Thomson a letter of introduction to Fay, who knew everybody worth knowing in the social and intellectual world, and who opened the door to Thomson meeting Milhaud, Poulenc, Auric, Hemingway, Cocteau, and Satie. Also as foreign correspondent for the Boston Transcript, Thomson had access to all the important events taking place at the time.

George Antheil

With the bravura of youth Thomson was ready to take on the world. In George Antheil he found an ally just as, if not more, combative than he: two gallants, equally volatile, confrontational, bright, and alert. Antheil was a pet of the literary pace setters, like Joyce, Pound, and Cocteau. Their alliance, based on mutual admiration of each other's talent and promotional facility, had a latent underside -- their fierce, overactive egos, kept under wraps for a time. An eventual blowup was inevitable. These bold gentlemen diligently wooed all the right people, zeroing in on wealthy American women who congregated in Paris. This was not a cynical, nefarious, or unscrupulous method, but a matter of survival, a phase of almost every artist's career. The Paris critics were notoriously contemptuous, and the public lethargic and indifferent. For centuries only through patronage could the "new" come into being.

James Joyce

The legendary Sylvia Beach, the owner of the most famous bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare & Co., cleared the way for Antheil to meet James Joyce. Joyce had a fine tenor voice, loved opera and modern music, and was an admirer of Antheil, who in turn introduced Thomson to the great man. Joyce immediately saw that Thomson's intelligence was out of the ordinary, and he was impressed by his music. The author of Ulysses suggested they should collaborate on a ballet based on a scenario from his Finnegans Wake. Thomson very reluctantly turned it down out of loyalty to Gertrude Stein. She would have been furious and would have considered it an act of betrayal of their friendship.

Ezra Pound

Another friend of Beach, Ezra Pound, latched onto Antheil and was the contributing agent in the latter's fatal fall from grace. Pound wrote an embarrassing book, Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony, in which he spouted a lot of nonsense about a subject of which he was totally ignorant. Unfortunately Antheil, who had nothing to do with the book, was considered a willing partner in crime and was vilified. It led to his ostracism from the intellectual community.

Thomson from the first saw through the machinations of the self-serving Pound and never warmed up to him. The poet considered Thomson an enemy.

New Friends

But for a while Thomson and Antheil were inseparable and gave a series of Friday afternoon concerts devoted entirely to their works, sponsored by the millionairess Mrs. Christian Gross. At one of them, the first performance of Antheil's rambunctious Ballet mécanique caused a scandal and was the talk of Paris. Ironically, this performance was the beginning of the unraveling of Antheil's career, though even before this Thomson's attraction to Antheil's music was less intense. He remembers, "The career was more interesting than the composer."

Stein was not musical but she was always interested in any trend that was rumbling through the "in" cliques of Paris. Ballet mécanique was the latest rage, discussed everywhere, and so she invited Antheil to visit her. Even the nervy Antheil was uneasy about meeting the towering Stein so he took Thomson with him for protection. Stein immediately took a shine to Thomson but Antheil was never asked again. In all fairness to Antheil, Thomson was no stranger to Stein's work, and she in turn recognized in him the makings of a disciple. Not only was he an accomplished musician, he was exceptionally well acquainted with literature and painting. He invited her to a one-man (his) performance of Satie's Socrate. Stein's companion Alice B. Toklas had a respectable musical background. As a result this Socrate reading further cemented the budding friendship of the three of them and eventually led to the creation of Four Saints and The Mother of Us All. Toklas was the guiding hand behind the scene of this literary-musical duo relationship, even though initially she was not taken in by Thomson (probably resenting his closeness with her inamorata). It all worked out well; Thomson and Toklas, besides sharing their affection for Stein and each other, shared imaginative recipes. Thomson never forsook Toklas. Years after Stein's death, he was instrumental in helping her in countless ways when she was in need -- from food packages during and after the war to helping her sell at the best prices paintings left to her by Stein.

The Launching of Four Saints

The Four Saints
3 figures from Four Saints in 3 Acts

The artistic and commercial success of Four Saints must all be credited to Thomson's skill in diplomacy, tact, persuasive power, and flair for organization. For three or four years he had been playing and singing the score for anyone whom he could corral. Thomson, never a virtuoso, was an engaging and amusing performer. His comments and parodies of music were hilarious, particularly a devastating version of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Everybody loved Four Saints but no one offered to put it on the stage. It was eventually produced under the auspices of the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. The financial backing was raised by Chick Austin. Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, and the architect Philip Johnson helped in this matter.

During a 1932 visit to America, Thomson's friend Carl Van Vechten, music critic and author of mildly naughty novels, kept the wheels turning. At one of his parties, he introduced Thomson to the painter Ettie Stettheimer, the youngest of three sisters whose salon was one of the most influential in America. In Stettheimer Thomson recognized the person who would be the stage designer (entirely in cellophane) of the opera. Frederick Ashton, who was to become the director of the Royal Ballet, devised the choreographic movements. He engaged John Houseman, then unknown, to be director, and Alexander Smallens (who one year later was to conduct the first performance of Porgy and Bess) to lead the orchestra. Four Saints premiered in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1934.

Stein and Thomson agree that Maurice Grosser's clever scenario was a major factor of the opera's success. The first audience, the elite of the social and theater world, was stunned, amazed, delighted; no one quite knew what to make of it, particularly the critics, who found the music reactionary and shocking. Praise was universal for the graceful and beautiful black cast, a probable first in the history of opera. Four Saints was such a provocative, notorious success that it was transferred to Broadway for an eight-week run (before Menotti's The Medium and The Telephone). Thomson at last was the most discussed composer in America.

Women in His Life

Thomson was never a misogynist; he was always attracted to women of intelligence and sophistication and they were drawn to him. Although these relationships were Platonic, they were not ephemeral or shallow. Some were patrons who helped him during difficult times but he was never a sycophant playing a game for financial support. A man so fiercely independent in every corner of his life allowed no one to control his actions. Loyalty was one of his virtues, and long after their separation he remembered these women with respect and love.

Two other women besides Stein and Toklas played a major role in his life. Louise Langlois, a French woman of a distinguished professional family, was 40 years older than he, although he didn't know this until after her death in 1936. An elegant woman of exquisite taste, kind, ethical, and loyal, she was the archetype of the French upper-class as he was of the American Midwest. To Thomson, who saw all of France, not just Paris, as a mirror of Missouri, Madame Langlois (he always called her that) reminded him of his family, a replica of his Kentucky aunts who always wore formal taffeta dresses and diamond earrings when they came to visit. Next to his mother and sister, Madame Langlois was the most important woman in his life, a maternal friendship that lasted for 13 years.

Quite different was his relationship with his "girlfriend" Mary Butts, an intimate of the Cocteau coterie and a remarkable English writer of decadent habits. Thomson said she was very "decent in spite of it all." Butts was a heavy drinker, took opium, adored all-night parties, dabbled in mysticism, believed in incantatory magic -- all the fads and crazes Thomson would have no part of. Somehow these two complex, widely divergent people hit it off from the beginning. They were both gifted, fun loving, adventurous, and completely involved in the arts. Butts introduced him to new ways of thinking and responding to areas of experience unknown to him before. Seven years older than Thomson, twice married, she was no innocent fairy-tale princess. Her knowledge of culture was as far reaching as his. She was his equal in any battle of verbal persiflage.

But she miscalculated; she thought she knew how to maneuver him. To Thomson, their relationship was primarily artistic and intellectual, although their ethics and lifestyles were diametrically opposite. To Butts, the ultimate goal was matrimony. When Thomson at long last realized how things were drifting, he absconded as fast as he could. It saddened him that he was unable to make the final commitment she hoped for. This emotional relationship was, except for that with Maurice Grosser, the most personal in his life. In his own way he loved her as intensely as she loved him. When she died in 1937, he said he felt "like a widow."

17 quai Voltaire

Thomson was intimate with Les Six and other French musicians but not entirely an integral part of all their activities. It was true that he did employ some of their techniques in his music and was influenced by their street-wise braggadocio, but there was something un-French and very American about it that they could not quite understand. Only Milhaud, who left Paris to become secretary to the French ambassador of Brazil and had seen more of the world than other young parochial Parisians, grasped what he was up to -- an American style of French music. In his book Notes Without Music he writes "Thomson is the real disciple of Erik Satie and divides his time between New York and Paris to the great benefit of cultural relations between the countries."

But musicians were only a segment of Thomson's world; any casual guest list of his chic Friday night dinners (shades of Sunday evenings in Kansas City) hosted by the jovial, informed, and snappy American host in his small apartment at 17 quai Voltaire will attest to that -- Gide, Duchamp, Hemingway, Hart Crane, Janet Flanner, Picasso, Mary Garden, Cocteau, Scott Fitzgerald, Stein, Beecham, Christian Dior, etc. Here food and wine were a connoisseur's dream, the conversation and gossip on an Olympian level. To be dissected at such an assembly was considered an honor.

Stein had found this apartment for him in an area of Paris alive with the ghosts of Ingres, Voltaire, Delacroix, and Wagner. 17 quai Voltaire was Thomson's home in Paris until he sold it at a handsome profit in the 1950s. To pay the rent must at times have been a burden, but Maurice Grosser lived with him when he was in Paris and shared expenses. They were an odd couple, Grosser being just as unkempt as Thomson was fastidious. Like Auden, Thomson was a finicky old maid in his habits and daily routine. The painter's disorderliness was everywhere, and Thomson's tolerance admirable; their home life was stormy, but their deep relationship made anything possible.

II. The Musician
    The Operas
    Other Compositions
    Coda
III. The Personality


©1996 by the Virgil Thomson Foundation, Ltd.

 

 

 
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